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Confucius: On Food and Eating

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Food in History

Spring Volume: 2016 Issue: 23(1) pages: 9 to 11 and 22

Confucius (551 - 479 BCE) was born in the State of Lu near Qufu. Now thousands of years later, this sage and educator is honored here and elsewhere in China and around the world. He broke tradition and educated students from every walk of life. One special time is in Qufu between September 26th and October 10th. This time and others, locals and family speak to his many accomplishments including that he was China’s most influential philosopher, their most famous teacher.

His legacy remains thanks most importantly to the writings of the Han Dynasty historian, Sima Qian, also The Analects compiled by his disciples and their disciples centuries after his death, the narrative Zuozhuan written in the 4th century CE from earlier sources, and Confucian teachings compiled by Mencius in a volume titled Mengzi. Mencius, also a sage (372 - 289 BCE), did admire Confucius as did many others; he lived near Qufu in the State of Zou in the city of Zoucheng, and he and others touted and advanced Confucian thoughts and beliefs.

Year-round and when appropriate, Confucius is remembered and honored at special dinners at the Kong Mansion in Qufu. Invited guests gather at the here in this city in the Shandong Province about two hours from Jinan, its capital city. His direct descendants often serve elaborate festivities and ceremonial meals here, some relate to planting and harvesting. Family members and officials do member birthdays and/or memorial days of descendant deaths, and other important events that relate to Confucius.

Today, this Kong Mansion, spoken of as the home of Confucius, is a museum, a World Heritage Site, and one of three large ancient architectural complexes in China. Some say it is the largest Ming-dynasty-style set of buildings. It is east of the Temple of Confucius, no longer connected to it, with offices in front, residential quarters in the rear, and a garden out back. The most senior descendant can reside in the central building if desired; though no one does at present. Its eastern part has a study and is where official guests are greeted and where they worship this sage. The western part is most often used for family meals. It, too, has a study and is where family visits with guests, friends and relatives. Some say there are now one hundred fifty-two buildings in this complex, however, these are really rooms in its main buildings.

When first built, this complex had four hundred eighty rooms with 134,000 square feet of indoor space. The tallest place was Dacheng Hall, a main hall with a tower designed to be a shelter should this mansion ever be attacked; but it never has.

Among other things, these buildings house more than sixty thousand documents related to Confucius. They look like Ming or Qing Dynasty structures. The very first of these government built edifices to honor this sage was built in 1030 CE. In 1377, it was relocated to its present site, and in 1503 was expanded to the current three large buildings with five hundred and sixty rooms grouped together. This Kong Mansion and the Temple of Confucius nearby have large outside spaces behind them, each divided into nine courtyards, three by three.

In 1886, part of these buildings, the women's quarters, was damaged by fire. It was totally destroyed; and it is interesting to note that no men were allowed to fight that fire. Also of interest, is knowing that Confucius preached and taught in the Apricot Hall, the Kui Wen Pavilion, a library in the middle of the temple, and in other places on this property.

When one enters these grounds, there is a main gate with a plaque that says: Shengfu or Holy Mansion. Another gate or point of entry is the Chongguang Men or Gate of Double Glory; it was erected in 1503 and is used only for ceremonial purposes. The Da Tang or Great Hall is used for official business and the reading of imperial edicts, and is the second largest hall mostly used to receive high-ranking officials. The third largest, The Hall of Withdrawal, as its name indicates, is used most often to greet people before they leave the property. There are other small and large rooms used for various purposes, as needed, including some for meals and other purposes. At the Kong Mansion, some meals are served for invited guests, others only for family members, some for both. No one gets to eat here unless formally invited, and this mansion does serve snacks to invited guests and family members.

One meal’s first course, made for a few invited American guests and their hosts, is pictured. It was one we were invited to. We did not take the photograph and thank the unknown donor of this, our 1978 meal. Invited, we did arrive late as there was an accident on the road with a car blocking our way. That was why we did not get there when it began. We did miss many courses, and have lost our notes for the part we participated in. We recall enjoying immensely.

Kong Mansion meals are known as ‘special meals for special people.’ The highest level ever served is called The Bird's Nest or Gaobai Feast. At this honorific festivity, the most recent one we know of was for Emperor Qianlong some years ago. He and others, when served this feast, are served one hundred thirty courses on special silver-surfaced porcelain plates and platters. At least four of its courses are made with bird’s nests. The others prepared with other delicious and special foods. The purpose of this particular meal was for Emperor Qianlong to celebrate and appreciate his long life and service to his country.

The next level of important meals made and served here is called The Four Sharkfin Dinner. It includes four dishes made with this special sea creature, and many others. We know not how many nor what they are. Next is a meal called The Three Sea Cucumber Dinner. It includes three dishes with these sea creatures and many others, too. We have never seen a list of these meals, to whom they were served, or the names of the dishes they include. We do believe this exists because the Chinese have kept detailed records of every dish served to their Emperors, who cooked them, and where the food came from. These meals served on official occasions are meticulously purchased and prepared. We believe every dish is beautiful, well seasoned, light and delicious, fresh and tender, also soft and fragrant.

During his lifetime, Confucius was not in favor of these kinds of elaborate meals. He did emulate past sages, particularly those from the Zhou Dynasty, and did believe in those types of sacrifices. For them, they cut animals and they are served according to appropriate standards. He had rules for diet, the army, integrity, food hygiene, food preparation, and many other things.

He taught these rules and sacrifices to his students, and taught them heaven's will is the way things ought to be. He prepared them to be gentlemen and he practiced ceremonies with them, taught them important literature, and taught them good morals. He emphasized that meals needed fresh foods properly prepared and simple. He believed and he practiced eating a moderate diet. He did so after consuming a small amount of ginger before each meal to remove excess wind and dampness in the stomach. He said ginger aids digestion and other related things. That is why he ate ginger before every meal.

Confucius had many thoughts about food and its preparation. The things he said, he actually did. He taught them to his students including but not limited to the following: 1) Rice should be cleaned well, not injured by heat nor dampness; 2) Rice should not be eaten if sour; 3) All meat should be minced small, not discolored, nor with bad flavor nor ill-cooked; 4) Foods should be eaten in season and not overindulged in even during festive seasons; 5) Meat should be cut properly, had with proper sauce, and in smaller quantities than rice; 6) Meat, hard on the digestive system, should be taken in reasonable amounts; 7) Too much drink (and he meant wine) can confuse the mind; 8) Dried meat from the marketplace needs to be clean; 9) Foods should not be overcooked nor badly handled; 10) A balanced diet needs rice, meat, and vegetables; 11) Rice should be the largest portion at every meal, and meat should not exceed it; 12) One must eat a balanced diet; 13) One should not talk at meals as it is unsafe; 14) One should not eat too much as it puts a burden on the spleen, stomach, and heart These are but a few of the things he said about food and drink; they are things he followed himself. He taught others to know the art of cooking, and that it lies in the taste of foods. He said all foods needs color, aroma, flavor, and texture.

The Analects, two pages shown with this article, were written by his disciples and their disciples, about 50 BCE. In them, one learns that Confucius had no objection to his rice being of the finest quality. As a staunch supporter of ritual, he was instrumental in shaping Chinese social relationships and moral thought.

His name, Kong Qiu or Kong Zi--and there are other spellings, is known by westerners in its Latinized form, namely: Confucius. His father, Kong He, was seventy when he was born. His mother, his father’s concubine, was known as Yan Zhengzai and she was fifteen at his birth. He had nine older sisters and a crippled brother; and his father died when he was three.

As a boy Confucius lived on rice and cabbage and followed the local custom of wearing a plain metal necklace to fool evil spirits into thinking he was a dog. He married at nineteen and a year later had a son they named Kong Li. His mother died in 527 BCE, and after three years of mourning, in 524 BCE he began work as a state administrator in the State of Lu.

Many years later, when nearly fifty, he was a governor of a small town and his job was to prosecute crime and promote morality. We read that he did it so well he was forced into voluntary exile by a neighboring governor. Then he wandered about for many years and began his serious teaching. He had already collected and edited many ancient holy books, ceremonial dances, and songs, too. The ethical teachings he fostered then are still being practiced in China and many Asian countries today.

Confucius is always shown as an elderly man, often accompanied by his beloved disciple, Yan Hui. Rarely is he shown with wife, later known as Qi Guan, or with his son, Kong Li. There are also rare pictures of him with any of his descendants, though one source says there may be forty thousand direct ones. Many of them are buried in the woods behind the Kong Mansion where his tomb is located.

Confucianism became the state religion in 136 BCE. Technically, it still is, but it is not practiced as most other religions are. What was practiced did stay in fashion until the beginning of the 20th century. Early on, when Chinese students trained to take the imperial examinations for an official position, they did need to learn his sayings; they no longer do.

Regardless of when The Analects were completed, they did not reach their final until the Han Dynasty. Also, there were two versions of them, the Lu and Qi versions. A third version, called ‘The Old Text’ was discovered hidden in his home a century after the first two. A tutor to Emperor Cheng did synthesize all of them and that version is what is recognized as The Analects of today. The two pages seen here are from that version. Confucius taught his students much of what is in this text; that included to respect fellow human beings, to learn from everyone encountered, and to always honor the cultural norms of others.

Very few reliable sources about this sage exist. A fundamental theme in all he taught is the importance of education, the importance of finding a balance between formal study and intuitive self-reflection. He is credited with teaching three thousand students, though only seventy are said to have mastered what he taught. All students knew him as Master Kong, not by his Latinized name of Confucius as that was given to him long after he taught them, created in the 16th century by Jesuit missionaries.

We know of only one food created in his memory; its recipe follows. We invite you to make it keeping in mind that it is nothing anyone knew that he ate; no such food existed and no one knows of any dish he actually did eat. This is one that one or more chefs created to honor his memory long after he died, exactly when is not known. This dish does exceed what he taught and what anyone ever wrote about his food and eating notions.
Eight Immortals Crossing the Sea
½ pound cooked boneless and skinless breast of chicken, minced finely
1/4 cup shark’s fin, cut finely
½ pound fresh sea cucumber, cut finely
1/8 pound canned or cooked fresh abalone, cut finely
1/8 pound fish bone jelly
1/4 cup fish maw, soaked and cut in fine strips
1/4 cup shrimp, peeled, its veins removed and discarded, each cut in four thin pieces
1/4 pound any white fish, skinless and boneless, minced, with come cooked and set aside as garnish
1/8 cup cooked Jinan ham, minced
1/8 pound asparagus, cut in one-quarter-inch pieces
2 Tablespoons minced fresh peeled ginger
3 Tablespoons Chinese rice wine
few leaves of bok cai, coarsely cubed, some set aside as garnish
3 cups chicken stock
2 Tablespoons lard or chicken fat or a mixture of both
1. Prepare all the solid ingredients, arranged artfully in eight sections at the bottom of a large soup bowl.
2. Put the ginger and the bok cai neatly on the sections not disturbing their display.
3. Boil the stock and the fat in a small pot and pour carefully over the eight sections of food. Then pass the bowl and allow the diners to take their own solid and liquid foods after putting the garnish on them.

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